The research team was enjoying a lunch break on the water after completing a morning of transect surveys, when we noticed a nearby competition pod. We realized that the whales were headed towards us and decided to put our GoPro camera in the water to document the behavior. To our amazement, we had filmed something we never expected to see – one of the whales was swimming with its penis out!
A humpback whale penis can be up to 10 feet long and is normally concealed inside the animal’s genital slit. Seeing the penis extrude from this slit is a rare sight, which is why we were so astonished and pleased about the footage.
What is a “competition pod” or “comp pod”? If you have been on a whalewatch you may have heard this term before. It is something commonly witnessed in the humpback whale breeding grounds, such as Hawai`i.
A competition pod is defined as a group of surface-active whales, which consists of one adult female that is being pursued by a group of males. The number of whales in a comp pod varies, from as few as 3 to very large pods with 20 or more animals. The pod composition is always changing; some whales will leave and others will join. The relative position of the whales within the pod can also change. The males become quite aggressive with each other as they try to gain the position closest to the female and become what is called the “primary escort”.
These competitions can be violent, and it is not uncommon to see blood on the whales as the tubercles on their head become rubbed raw in the heat of the battle. Behaviors often observed are head lunges, peduncle throwing, bubble blowing, jaw clapping, trumpeting and, of course, lots of splashing and blowing. Whales generally do not breach in a competition pod.
So, why do they do this? Well the reason is reproduction; the males are hoping that the female in the group will be receptive to mating.
As you can see in the video, the animal is swimming towards another whale with the penis clearly visible. It is not known if the whale being approached is a male or female, and research indicates that males can direct a penis extrusion toward either gender. It is not clear what function this behavior serves in a competition pod; but we are very glad to share our footage with you.
Footage collected under NMFS permit #16479